An image of the most distant known star in the universe was captured by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.
Named Earendel, after a character in JRR Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” prequel “The Silmarillion,” it is nearly 28 billion light-years from Earth.
That’s more than 10 billion light-years further away than the second most distant star astronomers have seen.
At such vast distances, experts can usually only distinguish entire galaxies, but a lucky coincidence allowed them to spot Earendel with the Hubble Space Telescope and then observe it again on July 30 with Webb.
By comparing the Hubble image to that of NASA’s new $10 billion (£7.4 billion) superspace telescope, experts were able to locate the elusive Earendel as a faint red dot beneath a cluster of distant galaxies.
Far, far away: The most distant known star in the universe has been captured by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Earendel is nearly 28 billion light-years away from Earth and is shown here in this image where the white arrow is
Circled: Experts were able to find Earendel as a faint red dot under a cluster of distant galaxies
“We’re excited to share Earendel’s first JWST image,” said a group of astronomers using the Cosmic Spring JWST Twitter account.
WHAT IS GRAVITY LENSING?
Gravitational lensing occurs when a massive galaxy or cluster of galaxies deflects light emitted from a more distant galaxy.
This forms a highly magnified, but highly distorted image.
This is because massive objects bend spacetime around them, causing light to follow a different path.
This theory was first proposed by Einstein in his general theory of relativity.
The star, whose light took 12.9 billion light-years to reach Earth, is so dim it would be challenging to find which images in visible, ultraviolet light compared to Webb’s infrared without Hubble’s help.
This example of the two telescopes working side by side is exactly what NASA had in mind, despite Webb ultimately being seen as the successor to the famous Hubble.
“We’re excited to share the first JWST image of Earendel, the farthest star known in our universe, lensed and magnified by a massive cluster of galaxies,” a group of astronomers said using the Twitter account Cosmic Spring JWST.
Their tweet refers to gravitational lensing, in which light is stretched into a long curve by the gravitational pull of a cluster of galaxies closer to Earth.
This process magnifies the Sunrise Arc galaxy where Earendel is located by a factor of more than 1,000, allowing astronomers with Webb to confirm that it is an individual star and not a cluster of hundreds.
The star is visible because it is perfectly aligned with the galaxy cluster to provide the maximum possible magnification, experts say.
“That’s a really lucky alignment,” Dan Coe, of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, told the new scientist.
“No one has ever seen such a highly magnified star, not to mention a galaxy.”
Because light takes time to travel, this new Webb image shows Earendel as it was about 900 million years after the Big Bang.
Tolkien’s character Eärendil was the inspiration for Earendel’s name, according to Brian Welch, a doctoral student who led a team of astronomers at Johns Hopkins University in the discovery of the distant star.
“Once we were pretty sure this object was a star, I started brainstorming possible names,” he said.
“Eärendil was one of the first things that came to mind as he eventually sails through the heavens with his ship Vingilot with the Silmaril on his forehead, becoming a star and a symbol of hope over Middle-earth.
“As I looked further into it, I discovered that Tolkien’s original inspiration for the character was an Old English word Earendel, meaning Morning Star.”
Welch added, “The reference to the “morning star” worked particularly well as this is a period often referred to as Cosmic Dawn, so that sealed the deal for me.”
At such vast distances, experts can usually only distinguish entire galaxies, but by lucky coincidence, they were able to spot Earendel with the Hubble Space Telescope (pictured) and then observe it again with James Webb on July 30.
By comparing the Hubble image (pictured) with Webb’s, experts were able to locate the elusive Earendel as a tiny reddish dot beneath a cluster of distant galaxies.
‘JWST was designed to study the first stars. Until recently, we assumed this meant populations of stars in the early galaxies,” astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland wrote in a recent article on gravitational lensing.
“But in the past three years, three individual stars with strong lenses have been discovered.
“This offers new hope for direct observation of individual stars at cosmological distances with JWST.”
Astronomers hope the next round of Webb observations for the Space Telescope Science Institute team, scheduled for December, can reveal what Earendel and the Sunrise Arc are made of.
“We’re all made of stardust, but that stuff wasn’t there in the early universe,” Coe said.
“This is a rare opportunity to see if the heavy elements were present in this star 13 billion years ago.”
Because light takes time to travel, this new image from Webb (pictured) shows Earendel as it was about 900 million years after the Big Bang
Last month, Webbs revealed dazzling, unprecedented images of a “stellar nursery,” a dying star shrouded in dust and a “cosmic dance” between a group of galaxies.
It ended months of waiting and feverish anticipation as people around the world were treated to the first batch of a trove of images that will culminate in the earliest ever at the beginning of the universe.
Webb’s infrared capabilities mean it can “look back in time” to just 100-200 million years after the Big Bang, allowing it to take pictures of the very first stars that shone in the universe more than 13.5 billion years ago.
The first images of nebulae, an exoplanet and galaxy clusters caused a big celebration in the scientific world, on what was hailed as a “great day for humanity.”
Researchers will soon learn about the masses, ages, histories and compositions of the galaxies, as Webb tries to explore the earliest galaxies in the universe.
The James Webb telescope: NASA’s $10 billion telescope is designed to detect light from the earliest stars and galaxies
The James Webb telescope has been described as a “time machine” that could help unravel the secrets of our universe.
The telescope will be used to look back at the first galaxies born in the early universe more than 13.5 billion years ago, and to observe the sources of stars, exoplanets and even the moons and planets of our solar system.
The massive telescope, which has already cost more than $7 billion (£5 billion), is thought to be a successor to the orbiting Hubble space telescope
The James Webb telescope and most of its instruments have an operating temperature of about 40 Kelvin – about minus 387 Fahrenheit (minus 233 Celsius).
It is the world’s largest and most powerful orbital space telescope, capable of peering back 100-200 million years after the Big Bang.
The orbiting infrared observatory is designed to be about 100 times more powerful than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope.
NASA likes to think of James Webb as a successor to Hubble rather than a replacement, as the two will be working together for a while.
The Hubble Telescope was launched on April 24, 1990 via the space shuttle Discovery from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
It orbits the Earth at a speed of about 27,300 km/h in low Earth orbit at an altitude of about 340 miles.